Day 123 - Karen

Day 123 - Karen (4th person I approached)
May 03, 2014 - I tried a new approach tonight, kind of by default. I had worked all day and then had an appointment that went longer than anticipated. I was hungry and needed to eat. I approached one person downtown right after work. He said no owing in part to our conflicting languages. I took a seat in a local mall and asked two others as they walked by, who both declined. While still seated, Karen walked past. At first she told me she was too tired. Then she said

“But I try to make a point of talking to people who talk with me. So yeah, let’s chat.”


Karen grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. When she was about ten years old, her mother, a single parent informed Karen they were moving to Vancouver.

”I remember being ok with that. I packed a small box of my favourite toys and I was ready,” she said. They settled in New Westminster, where Karen completed school.

“I had started to do volunteer work at a local vet’s office. Our neighbour had told my mother about it. I worked as a volunteer until I was 15, then I got a paid Saturday job there,” said Karen. When she finished school, Karen became a veterinary assistant.

“I worked as an assistant until I was about 25, then I thought I’d go back to school to become a veterinarian. I went to the University of British Columbia (UBC) and studied Agricultural Sciences. That’s a good base for entering veterinarian school. There is only one school in Western Canada that accepts only about 30 students per year to become vet’s. It’s very competitive. My mother became ill, and I took some time out of school to care for her. When I went back to school, I had effectively lost my place for vet’s school. My GPA (grade point average) had dropped comparatively because of the time I missed” said Karen. 


Back when Karen was a Saturday vet’s assistant, at age 16 or so, she had one of those "pivotal life" moments.

“My job was to bring pets who had spent time at the hospital down to a room where their owners would be, to meet with the Vet. I also put up the X-rays so the Vet could discuss the progress of the pet with it’s family. If there wasn’t a pet to go into the room with those X-rays, it meant the animal was very sick. In this one particular case, I only had X-rays, and the animal's family knew it wasn't good news. The mother said to me she didn’t know what they would do if they lost their dog. She explained to me that she had recently lost her husband and that her two teenage children had found great comfort in the love of their pet. That story stayed with me and when I went back to school, I took some psychology classes as well. I was young but recognized the impact of a pet’s love in a family’s well being” she told me. The psychology of patient care became of interest to Karen. She went on to complete her undergrad in Agricultural Sciences.


Upon graduation, Karen become involved in clinical research studies. As a research assistant, she gathered data related to the particular research she was doing. She worked in elderly care, aging and Alzheimer's, mental health issues and various other studies. It was on one such research study that Karen’s pivotal lesson from the vet’s office came into play. She was examining cognitive behaviour differences between pre and post bypass surgery. She was working with people who were given potential life-altering information, and then told to go home and wait, sometimes for months before further medical services might be offered.

“I had to ask these patients if they’d be interested in taking part in research wherein I’d follow their progress. I met with them throughout the diagnosis and treatment process, collecting information about how their individual cases went. It was at times very difficult work. But as I was one of the few who maintained contact throughout the process, and I built relationships with the patients.” It was through this that Karen decided to go back to school to get her Masters of Social Work degree.


Taking a unique approach to many things that Karen has done in her life, she completed one such ‘paper’ for her degree. Instead of writing a paper, Karen created a film for an organization called ‘Volunteer Grandparents of Canada.’ (*Fact Check - see links below.) Her film highlighted the positive effects and outcomes for all involved, and included experts in their field speaking to the value of the organization. She is now on staff full time in a hospital as a social worker.

“The demographic of the patients we see at the hospital I work in is very diverse. Elderly, immigrants, local residents, people with substance abuse issues, mental health issues. It’s the full spectrum,” said Karen. Her job is to guide patients through the system and find appropriate resources for those needing support, both short and long term.


Karen is herself a single parent, with a young daughter. We spoke of the great challenges in providing sometimes even the basics of life. People trying to pay rent, feed and clothe their families. Repaying student loans for education that was needed to make a living wage in our city.

“I live in a mixed housing community. It’s a combination of subsidized and market-value housing. I’ve had to fight to get to where I can make it on my income, and because I went to school, I’m carrying several thousand dollars in student loans. I’ve had to learn to get by on very little. I started a community garden, turning unused grass areas into vegetable plots. Others have started to do so as well. I’m also very fortunate that where I live truly is a community of people who care. There were days when as a student that my neighbours, my community rallied around to support me. Childcare, clothes, toys and love,” says Karen, her voice wavering and tears welling in her eyes.

“They provided what we needed.”


Now the city is planning to rezone and redevelop the entire community that Karen has come to love. The plans included a 35% reduction in the number of affordable housing units. Karen has initiated many actions and attended countless meetings. She’s networked and emailed, called and informed as many people as she can. Some of the housing units have been allowed to fall into disrepair.

“There’s one family I know of that had mould growing between their box-spring and mattress of their bed. The walls are covered in damp and mould. Some of the ground floor units are overrun with rats.

“This isn’t safe for a family. It shouldn't be allowed to happen,” she says. Karan has become educated on the processes and regulations, and a champion for her neighbours. She has also helped to see that much needed repairs are carried out for her neighbours and the community as a whole. (**Fact Check - see links below)


“I’ve taken a lot of time to become educated on not only the problems, but suggestions for solutions as well. We need to stop using hospitals as a means to address affordable housing shortages. The cost of one person in a hospital for one day is $900. That tax-payer money could house someone for a month. The research and data and science is there. People respond better to treatment when they have safe, adequate homes to live in. People are healthier, happier and better off when they have a place to call their own. To tear down social housing and replace it with less units than already exist just doesn’t make sense. Everyone deserves to have the basic necessities of life, including adequate and affordable housing.” #notastranger

*Fact Check -
**Fact Check -